Farmers protest the Shenhua mine in 2015 (Image: AAP/Kate Ausburn)

Five years ago, I visited one of the leaders of the opposition to the proposed giant Shenhua coal mine in the Liverpool Plains. The house was a yellow brick art deco place, a common style in rural Australia, vaguely municipal. Inside it had been meticulously restored. Except it had been restored back beyond art deco. It was an impeccable 19th century interior.

It was like some steampunk Tardis, full of dark red velvet and hanging serving spoons you could see your face in. As we talked about the campaign, I thought: wow, these people are really up against it. Their commitment is unyielding but they’re fighting the sweep of history. They can’t win.

They have. They and the Liverpool Plains’ Indigenous people — principally the Gomeroi — have won an extraordinary victory against big coal, the NSW government, and — omigod — the Chinese Communist Party, with NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro paying Shenhua (a Chinese state-owned mining group) $100 million in compensation to cancel its licence.

They could have got $300 million or half-a-billion at one stage, and the NSW government has resisted buying out of what it has known is a dog of a contract for several years. Now, it’s seen the writing carved into the coalface. There’s all sorts of reasons why this cancellation occurred, but the decade of campaigning is what made it a political problem for all concerned — and eventually something the government was desperate to resolve.

The Shenhua mine was always a dumb idea. The Liverpool Plains are an extraordinarily fertile blacksoil region in south east New England (the bottom half of Barnaby’s electorate). The place can be farmed without fertiliser and yield several crops a year. It looks like a valley, fringed by purple hills and mountains (Dorothea MacKellar wrote “My Country” about the place), but it’s really a flood plain, which feeds the NSW river system. The Shenhua mine would have sat in the middle of the plains, key parts of it below the floodtide waterline. It was almost comically nuts, a potential sabotage of agricultural export.

How did it come about? During the decadent end of post-Bob Carr Labor, when Ian “Sir Lunchalot” Macdonald was putting out high-priced lease permits in all directions. An actual strategy for mining had long since been abandoned; the government simply wanted the cash from the leases. There was a political point too, which many have missed. Macdonald had been a Latrobe Uni Maoist before moving rightwards (not an unusual progression). Some of the mine’s champions in the region were communists, or ex-such, from a time when the party had been a power in the region.

They saw the Liverpool Plains farmers as a landed elite denying people jobs, and that more mines would change the complexion of the region. They weren’t very sympathetic to Gomeroi notions of country, or their desire that it not become a scarred mess like the Hunter Valley.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. For over the decade since the lease’s granting, the prosperity and solidarity of mining had become symbolic rather than real. Why? Because the news that coal is dying is too real for anyone to ignore; because fly-in fly-out (FIFO) turned mining into an occupation of individual contractors, breaking up communities, which it was intended to do; and because the only way to make mining profitable into the future has been by the prospect of rapid automation, which can be serviced by the existing pool of FIFO miners.

The idea that what is now a specialised profession operating complex machines offers salvation to rural communities is an illusion governments sell troubled towns, framed in culture-war terms.

Meanwhile, the farmers and the Gomeroi had retained solidarity, from different sources, outside of the domain of capitalism. The Gomeroi are an intact people, who appear to have dominated the region pre-1788, possibly due to the plenty of the plains. Of the white farmers, critics are right — they’re a landed elite, dating from the 1840s, and living in a sort of Shangri-La separated from the rest of the country.

Their farms were valuable as property, but they were often cash poor. Harvests are done collectively, with no real tallying of hours, etc. That distinctive way of life laid the basis for a resistance that few communities have been able to offer.

That had already generated one victory, the styming of BHP’s Caroona coal mine, stopped in its tracks through a 24/7 blockade more a decade ago that lasted 600 days. Six hundred days! Anyone who has organised even a four-day protest knows how hard it is to keep it together; a 600-day blockade is more like one of the great strikes of the high industrial era than anything else. The movement had the usual internal conflicts, frustrations and burnout, but it held.

Furthermore, it was a resistance to the National Party which had, since the founding of Eastern Star Gas by former (and future) leader John Anderson in the 1990s, converted itself into a larval precursor of mining wealth. Whitehaven Coal — what a name! — was helmed by Mark Vaile. And on it went.

For years the Nats have believed they could busk their way through this contradiction. They were right, in that many of the protesters would still vote National, to the frustration of many of the blockade leaders. Now, finally, that is starting to come apart. With the Shooters nipping at them from the populist right, and the “Voices of” movement from the centre-left, the Nats have suddenly realised that they could be in trouble — not in one or two electorates but in half-a-dozen.

The fight is not over. As one of the leaders told me, “if they can’t defeat coal seam gas” — the carte blanche right to extract gas and despoil surrounding land, for a white elephant export industry which sells us back our own gas at a super-premium — “then it’s all been in vain”.

There are differences of interest and approach between the green movement and the farmers — on water issues, on land — that shouldn’t be papered over. They left the Lock the Gate/North West Alliance over differences on larger policy issues some time ago. And there needs to be a creative and community solution to dispossession.

Many of these farms are so large now (from consolidation as people sell up and move on; the solidarity was in part generated because those who remained really wanted to farm) that chunks of them could be simply deeded over to the Gomeroi, either for farming themselves or “rewilding” — perhaps “decolonising” is a better term — as on-the-ground reparation, and the recomposition of community.

But take your victories where you find them. This is an extraordinary achievement by many groups, which should be better known and celebrated. Whatever realpolitik manoeuvres determined the final blow, at the heart of such events is always a will to resist against steep odds.

How strange the twists and turns of history. Out of the past, the future. Which is what we call not history, but History.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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